PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Better known for producing third-world poverty and political mayhem - as well as a world-class rum - the Western Hemisphere’s least developed country has made a surprising entry into the high-tech world with its own Android tablet.
Sandwiched between textile factories in a Port-au-Prince industrial park next to a slum, a Haitian-founded company has begun manufacturing the low-cost tablet called Sûrtab, a made-up name using the French adjective “sûr,” meaning “sure,” to suggest reliability.
Unlike the factories next door where low-paid textile workers churn out cheap undergarments for the U.S. market, Sûrtab workers are equipped with soldering irons, not sewing machines.
Dressed in sterile white work clothes, and a hair net, Sergine Brice is proud of her job. “I never imagined I could, one day, make a tablet by myself,” she said.
Unemployed for a year after losing her position in a phone company, Brice, 22, was not sure she had the skills when she took the job after Sûrtab opened last year.
“When I arrived and realized the job deals with electronic components, I was wondering if I would be able to do it. But when I finished my first tablet ... I felt an immense pleasure,” she said.
Her family and friends were skeptical. “None of them believed me,” she said. “Tablets made in Haiti? What are you talking about?” they told her.
“Haitians have in our minds the idea that nothing can be done in this country. I proved that yes, we Haitians have the capacity to do many things,” she said. “It’s not just Americans or Chinese. We’ve got what they’ve got, so we can do it too.”
With $200,000 in start-up funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and using imported Asian components, the factory produces three models all with 7-inch (18-cm) screens that run on Google Inc’s (GOOG.O) Android operation system. They range from a simple wifi tablet with 512 megabytes of RAM for about $100, to a 3G model with 2-gigabytes of memory for $285.
The small factory with 40 employees is a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s when Haiti had a thriving assembly industry, including computer boards, as well as baseballs for U.S. professional teams.
Political turmoil, and a U.S. economic embargo in the 1990s following a military coup, put them out of business.
“A product such as Sûrtab shows that Haitians are not just destined for low-wage, low-skilled jobs,” said John Groarke, country director for USAID. “It’s the sort of high-skilled job that the country needs to work its way out of poverty.”
Brice, who works an eight-hour shift, would not disclose her salary. Sûrtab employees receive a bonus for each tablet that successfully passes the quality control and the company says it pays two to three times the Haitian minimum wage of $5 a day.
With only a limited selection of expensive imported tablets available in Haiti, Sûrtab is the cheapest device on the market.
“It’s easy to use and it takes really good quality photos, like any other tablet,” said one happy customer, Lisbeth Plantin. “And it’s great to see ‘Made in Haiti’ on the back,” she added.
At the factory there is no production line, instead workers assemble each device from start to finish.
“We could have done like in Asia, one task per employee, which is faster, but we wanted to have a better quality product,” said Diderot Musset, Sûrtab’s production manager.
Depending on the model, it takes an employee between 35 minutes and an hour to make a tablet. The company produces between 4,000 to 5,000 tablets a month, but plans to double that in April.
“We want the parts of the market which are not taken by the big players, especially in developing countries. These people would like to have a tablet but cannot afford an iPad,” he said, referring to the Apple Inc (AAPL.O) device that costs at least $300 in U.S. stores and is barely available in Haiti.
All the factory floor employees are women.
“It was not a choice we made but it happens that women have better results. I think women may be more open to learn something completely different from what they were doing before,” Musset said with a smile.
The company is running into inevitable skepticism about the quality of a Haitian-made tablet. “Some people only believe in it when they come here and see the girls working,” he said.
The company has a retail distribution deal in Haiti with Digicel, a global telecom company that dominates the local cellphone market, as well as sales to Haitian government ministries and local non-governmental organizations.
A university in Kenya also ordered 650 Sûrtab devices.
Sûrtab is hoping to diversify its product line beyond tablets, said Patrick Sagna, director of business development.
“We want to establish a presence in the software sector. We are in contact with people from San Francisco who are ready to work with Haitian developers,” he said.
Sûrtab’s investors are looking to build an applied science graduate school, as well as looping in Haiti’s skilled arts and crafts industry to help with design.
“Rather than importing covers for our tablets, we will produce them locally,” said Sagna. “We want our packaging, made with recycled and recyclable materials, to become a traveling cultural exhibition to highlight Haitian culture around the world,” he added.
Additional reporting by David Adams; editing by David Adams and Lisa Shumaker